Kanaka Heritage Lives on in BC

Posted by Daniel on Jun 8, 2011 - 6 comments

Sorry about that. A technical glitch knocked me offline for a few days. But I'm back, and sorry to read last week about the death of former provincial finance minister, and mayor of Saanich, Mel Couvelier.

Of the accounts of his career that I read, there was no mention of one of the most remarkable ways that Mr. Couvelier was connected to the history of the province: he was descended from Kanakas.

Kanakas were Hawaiians (the word means "human being" in Polynesian) who came to BC in the nineteenth century to work for the Hudson's Bay Company in the fur trade. Some married local women and settled here instead of retiring back to Hawaii. In Vancouver, for instance, there was a small community known as Kanaka Ranch down in Coal Harbour at the entrance to Stanley Park.

As historian Jean Barman relates in her book Maria Mahoi of the Islands (New Star Books), Mr. Couvelier was the great-grandson of Maria Mahoi, a remarkable woman who was herself the daughter of a Kanaka man and a First Nations woman. She was born in 1855, long before BC became a province, and lived until 1936. She raised a large family, first on all on Saltspring Island and then on Russell Island, a small island in Fulford Harbour that is now part of the Gulf Islands National Park.

As Kanakas intermarried and merged with the local community they tended to lose their distinctive ethnic identity but there are still many British Columbians who proudly trace their ancestry back to the Hawaiian pioneers and Mel Couvelier was one of them.

If you want to learn more about the Kanakas in Vancouver, check out another book by Jean Barman, Stanley Park's Secret: The Forgotten Families of Whoi Whoi, Kanaka Ranch and Brockton Point (Harbour Publishing).